Tattooed black gums are especially popular in small towns and villages like Thies, in Senegal. Women here practice this ancient tradition to get a smile that is considered more attractive. Of course, the process is nothing short of painful. Marieme, from Thies, is one such young girl to have gone through the procedure. I watched a documentary on YouTube that covered her journey from having regular gums to the more desirable black variety. Before she went for it, she said, “I want black gums to obtain a more beautiful smile. It’s become an obsession. I do fear the procedure. But I’ll be OK.”
Fast-forward into the documentary a bit and you’ll see that Marieme was far from okay. The woman who administered the tattoo did not work out of a parlor, as you would expect, but from the backyard of her home. Her family pays no attention to her, and she herself doesn’t do it for the money but for the love of it. She charges little over $1 for her work, and believes that black-tattooed gums are the way to sound dental health. “I’m doing tattoos out of my own free will. It’s not something my mother taught me. By tattooing the gums we can take care of our teeth. You’ll never see our gums bleeding. We have healthy teeth. We eliminate everything that’s damaging for the mouth and never have foul breath. When you don’t expose your gums when you smile you won’t notice it. But it gives you a more attractive smile,” she said.
The tattoo is done using a black powder – a mixture obtained by burning oil and Shea butter. The customer rests her head on the woman’s lap and the powder is generously applied to the gums. After this, a sharp, needle-like instrument is repeatedly poked into the gums, causing them to be dyed black. This is done in several layers, and by the time the woman is finished, the customer is in a world of pain. Seven layers were planned for Marieme, but she began to struggle right from ‘the get-go’. “It hurts. I would never recommend this torture to anyone,” she said. “It really hurts. I thought I was going to die. But I tried to hang on.” Finally, she got only 4 layers done, and has no regrets now. Because she has beautiful gums.
According to the gum tattoo-artist, “Less and less women are doing this, but some are still interested. Especially young women who are looking for a lover. Listen to me, tattooed gums and a silver tooth: that’s what’s attractive. A woman should not have red gums. Her gums need to be dark. A nice smile attracts men. A nice smile with white teeth.” She also tells us that the custom is not generally meant for men. But there are still those men who get it done as a form of dental care, as a treatment for loose teeth or other problems.
That’s all it takes for some women in Senegal to be happy – black gums, a silver tooth, a beautiful smile. I’d have to say, the end result didn’t look all that bad after all.